oil painting of girl in blue dress asleep on the ground
The Torah teaches compassionate rejuvenation and profound respect for rest ("Resting Greek Girl" by Théodore Jacques Ralli)

This week’s Torah takeaway: Give yourself a needed rest

The Torah column is supported by a generous donation from Eve Gordon-Ramek in memory of Kenneth Gordon.


Leviticus 25:1–27:34

I, for one, am really, really tired. I’ve always been a night owl, staying up until the wee hours of the morning, enjoying the quiet while most people were asleep. But this pandemic has wiped me out.

It seems a little counterintuitive.

Lying around in pajamas for a year has made me more tired than usual?

Oddly, yes!

But my exhaustion now feels different from other kinds of tired that I’ve known. Fourteen months into this pandemic, I’m emotionally drained. I’m physically tired, too, from chasing kids around and the worry that leads to restless sleep. But the tired I feel now feels like a holistic, body-mind-soul kind of tired.

I knew I needed a rest when, last week, I started a playful conversation with a friend about the kind of remote, jungle island I’d like to decamp to for the next six months.

I found myself immersed in imagining the jungle plants and fruits that would grow in this magical and restorative place. There were lots of vines and brightly colored flowers. I imagined a mysterious and exotic locale. I invited my friend to help me day dream. We spent quite a lot of time imagining what my identity would be for this fictional sabbatical. I’d need a mysterious and floral name, we decided, and a story, to go along with my sudden arrival on the remote island. Briefly, I transported myself away from the last 14 months of worry and stress. My longing for a complete rest helped me create a very vivid image in my mind.

Rest — a good, long cessation from worry and concern — is something we could all use right about now. Over the last 60 weeks, we’ve all been bombarded with emotions, as we’ve navigated this pandemic experience.

Whether we’ve processed them yet or not, we’ve been inundated with feelings.

As a wise rabbi friend told me one recent morning, “It’s important to feel your feelings … but not all day. It’s too much.”

I’m probably not the only person dreaming about running away to a jungle island these days. I smiled when I read this week’s double Torah portion.

Behar-Bechukotai — like most of the Torah portions during the pandemic — spoke boldly to me. This portion explains, in great detail, the laws governing a sabbatical. It mentions the effects of a year of complete rest on the people, animals and plants associated with the land of Israel.

This parashah teaches about the complete cessation of planting and harvesting — a radical concept in the ancient world.

It was very progressive for its time.

The Torah teaches compassionate rejuvenation, and profound respect for rest. The Torah goes so far as to command a complete rest from productivity, from collecting and counting, from financial gain and obligation.

All of this jumped off the parchment for me at this tired time in my life!

I began to think about the Torah’s lessons in the context of a pandemic. Fourteen months into this tiring experience, the value the Torah places on rest is inspiring. What if … we could all experience a true cessation from our work, worry and weariness for a while? What if … we could create a space of true rest for a bit, so that we can return to engage in the hard work of rebuilding and reinventing our society? What if … we treated ourselves with compassion, recognizing that this has been an exhausting time and that our bodies, minds and souls need real rest to be restored?

Our selves, like our land, need an opportunity to build up resources and become strong again.

As our ancestors began to construct an autonomous society on Israel’s soil, they needed to learn how to work in partnership with the land and the crops, the animals and the workers. And how to harness the energy to build anew. They needed to learn how not to burn out. And how not to exhaust the land so that it would provide nothing more.

These lessons are equally valuable for us.

As we think about the important work of returning to productivity and growth, we must first take an accounting of the toll that this pandemic has taken on us.

After a long rest, our ancestors were restored. They were prepared for the hard work of cultivating and growing. We, too, must prepare for the future. Our own strength will be necessary to succeed. We must create a restorative process for ourselves — a sabbatical of sorts — which inspires and guides us to return to work after a good rest.

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf
Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf

Rabbi Jessica Zimmerman Graf is the senior rabbi at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. She is a participant in the AJWS Global Justice Fellowship, which inspires, educates and trains American rabbis to become national advocates for human rights.